Expanded ‘charitable choice’ programs will require additional safeguards

Sunday, December 24, 2000

In keeping with the season, a wave of holiday cheer has hit the
nation's capital this week. Promises of cooperation and civility fill the air
as President-elect George W. Bush poses for smiling pictures with the
vanquished Al Gore and other members of the opposition party.

But all is not forgotten or forgiven. Beneath the veneer of goodwill
and gracious platitudes seethe partisan emotions stirred by one of the
bitterest post-election battles in American history.

Now comes the hard part. Can Bush keep his promise to find “common
ground” with a nation — and a Congress — split down the middle?

It won't be easy, especially on three “church-state” issues that are
high on the Republican agenda: government funding for faith-based programs,
religion in public schools and vouchers.

On the first of these issues, the president-elect has already signaled
that he's going to move ahead with proposals that are sure to spark a fight in
Congress. In a meeting with religious leaders this week, Bush reaffirmed his
intention to expand “charitable choice,” the provision of the 1996 federal
welfare reform act that allows religious groups to receive government funding
for programs that deliver welfare services to the poor.

Why should this be controversial? After all, during the campaign Bush
and Gore both endorsed the idea that faith-based programs should be allowed to
compete for government funds on the same basis as other private-sector
providers of social services.

But there are many Democrats and some Republicans who still have
serious constitutional objections to charitable choice. Any effort to extend
the idea beyond the welfare act will meet stiff resistance.

Advocates of a strict separation of church and state — such as
the Baptist Joint Committee and Americans United — argue that allowing
religious institutions, including houses of worship, to receive government
funding violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

True, the welfare reform act prohibits the use of tax dollars for
religious purposes. But separationists warn that there are few safeguards in
current and proposed legislation mandating charitable choice.

What are the dangers? Taxpayers may end up paying for religious
proselytizing, and religious groups may find themselves conforming to
government requirements in order to compete for funds.

Proponents of charitable choice dismiss these objections, arguing that
to bar religious groups from receiving government funding for social-service
programs would be unfair and discriminatory. Besides, they say, faith-based
programs are by far the most effective way to help those in need. Religion can
do what government can't.

Is there any common ground?

One possibility would be to add additional safeguards to ensure that
the funds will not be used for proselytizing. For example, Congress could
require that workers delivering the services for religious groups be hired on a
nondiscriminatory basis, thus creating the probability of a diverse work force
for the funded program.

Getting agreement on such a requirement will be challenging, since
many religious groups may be unwilling to waive their right to discriminate in
hiring on the basis of religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Given the popular support among the electorate for charitable choice,
Bush may see no need to add this or any other “safeguard” to his proposals. But
if he doesn't, expect a long and bitter fight, first in Congress and then in
the courts.

Next week: Will the new president find common ground on religion in
public schools or vouchers?